Iceland may be a tiny country but don’t let that fool you! This little island has mastered the art of packing as much natural beauty as possible into as little space as possible. If you’re visiting Iceland and you’re limiting your trip to Reykjavik and guided tours, you’re missing out on the best parts of this unassuming yet larger than life destination.
If you want to do this trip properly and affordably, these tips are going to ensure you’re set up for success.
1. Choose the accommodations that are right for you.
Once you’ve locked in your cheap-as-can-be flight, Icelandic Trip Planning tradition states that you will then exert a ghastly scream when you first look at the price of accommodations.
It’s really expensive.
But the good news is that there are plenty of options and if you do it right, you can offset other prices in the process to keep your budget in check. The main factor here will be how many people, if any, you will be splitting the cost with.
Camping: individual or more
What better way to observe untouched nature than from a tent in the mountains? Iceland offers 170 registered camp sites throughout the country that will allow you to pitch your tent carefree. Alternatively, in the case that a campsite is not nearby, the law actually permits you to camp out on a stranger’s property so long as you respect specific regulations. There are more details here.
If you’re more of a free-spirit or you have a limited budget then go for this option! Just don’t forget to account for the extra weight of a tent on your back and remember that camping is only an option during the summer months (generally June to September).
Hotel: 2 people
There is some worth in exploring this option but I do find that AirBNB gives you far more bang for your buck. Generally, you might consider looking into a hotel if you’re traveling in twos. It’ll likely be too expensive on your own and if you’re a group of three or more, your costs may double as most rooms are based on double occupancy.
AirBNB: 3 people or more
This is my top recommendation, for a number of reasons. With a price similar to that of a hotel, you get SO much more for your money! More space, a full kitchen, a direct contact with a local, and most importantly, the opportunity to split housing costs with multiple people.
The most valuable advantage to booking through Airbnb is the fact that you can now store and prepare your meals rather than dining out. With food costs being unbelievably pricey, having a kitchen at your disposal offsets the cost of your Airbnb with the amount of money you’ll be saving in your food budget.
2. Plan your meals.
One of the easiest ways to trim your budget is in the way that you plan your meals. It’s about finding a balance between dining out and eating in.
Iceland offers some unique and delicious dishes and you mustn’t visit any country without tasting their local food so this isn’t a hard rule against restaurant meals. Rather, divvy out specific times and money to spend at a well-researched restaurant of your choice. Reducing the amount of restaurant food you purchase will both knock down your costs but also make those meals far more special and memorable.
But in order to really maximize your food budget, utilizing that Airbnb kitchen is going to be essential. Note that while this may be trickier to do in a hotel or while camping, it’s still very much possible.
Once you’ve determined your daily itinerary, you can work your meal planning into it. Throughout your adventures, you’ll always have food readily available and you’ll also open up some unique opportunities like eating your lunch at the top of the Hverfjall Crater.
3. Drive it Yourself.
If you’re serious about getting to know Iceland, then don’t leave the fate of your trip in the hands of a tour company. Sure, you’ll see a few things and hear a few tidbits of history but you’ll be missing so much!
You can still see everything you would have on these tours if you wish but instead you’ll be in full control of how you get there. Moreover, it’s now possible to go anywhere, see anything and take as many detours as you choose.
The cost to rent a car isn’t cheap, of course, but you have to consider how much value you gain by doing so. If you limit yourself to taxis and tour buses, you’re limiting your experience to the distance they’re willing to take you, which is simply unacceptable when it comes to Iceland.
There are options for every budget. From the very low (and concerning) end, there is a company called Sad Cars that offers older vehicles for low prices. It goes up from there but for peace of mind, we went with a mid-range reputable company like Budget.
4. Travel in Fours.
This isn’t going to be relevant to everyone but it’s worth mentioning for those that can.
We determined that when it comes to finding the most cost-effective way to travel Iceland, the ideal number of people in a group is four. Or multiples of four (if you can get a group of eight or 12 travellers together, sign me up!).
In theory, you’d think the more people in your group, the lower the costs become but that’s not necessarily the truth. Here’s why.
If you’re driving yourselves and sticking to a budget, you should be driving a smaller car. With four people, you’ve got plenty of room to stretch out, organize your road trip essentials, and not impede on the personal bubbles of your companions.
Once you add in a fifth member, you’ve got a tight seating arrangement in most vehicles. If you get a bigger vehicle with more than just a middle seat for your extra friend (and for 6+ hour drives, trust that you’re not going to want to sit in the middle seat), you’re already spending more than you would have even with the additional person to split with.
The other alternative would be renting a second car and that doesn’t become cost-effective until you’ve got an additional four people to occupy that vehicle.
This issue extends further as most accommodations seem to work in multiples of two. Since it’s unnecessarily expensive to travel as a duo, a group of four solves both issues nicely.
5. Go North.
The blogs and the reviews and the brochures will all tell you to explore the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon. Sure, they’re safe bets and they’re beautiful. And they’re close enough to Reykjavik that you’re never far from the airport.
But where’s the fun in playing it safe?
I’m not saying you should avoid those areas but it should be a side note in your trip, not the main feature. Because if you truly want to see what Iceland has to offer, I encourage you to drive north!
To drive this point further, I’ve put together a road trip itinerary for you to follow. It’s safe, beautiful, and full of adventure!
6. Wake Up Early.
There’s a reason why, no matter where you go in the world, popular sightseeing areas are crowded with people at 2:00 in the afternoon. Most people just don’t like to wake up early.
“It’s vacation!”, they’ll say, as they lazily hit the snooze button one more time.
But you’re better than that! You plan ahead and get some sleep the night before so you can wake up and hit the roads before the tour buses fill up.
I assume you didn’t come to the land of infinite adventure to sleep in, right? My guess is you want to discover as many crazy, out-of-this-world experiences as you can while you’re there, yes?
So wake up early! Visit the most popular areas before 11:00 am and you’ll get a better view, better photos, and more time to indulge in those experimental detours en route. After all, that’s why we decided to drive ourselves, right?